Renewing the Agriculture of the Middle: A Planning grant request to develop a Southern Strategy

Final Report for LS04-165

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $15,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Edna Rodriguez
Rural Advancement Foundation International - USA
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Project Information


This planning grant is for the development of an initiative to address the declining agriculture of the middle in the south. In early 2005, staff interviewed individuals across the south about their interest and ideas about the initiative. An initial meeting was held at the Southern SAWG conference in January of 2005. Since that time, a smaller group of individuals have been working to develop proposals for an initiative, including farmers, members of RAFI staff and the staff of the Southern SAWG. This work has resulted in a SARE pre-proposal that is currently being developed into a full proposal.

Project Objectives:

1. Interviews of agricultural leaders in the south about their interest and understanding of the needs of agriculture of the middle.

2. Initial discussion meeting during the 2005 Southern SAWG conference.

3. Follow-up discussions


In recent years there has been an increasing divide in agriculture. On the one hand, one of the greatest success stories of sustainable agriculture has been the growth of small-scale producers developing high-dollar direct and niche markets. On the other hand, there has been significant growth in the numbers of very large operations, attempting to take advantage of economies of scale to be able to compete in undifferentiated commodities markets.

However, there has been, and continues to be, rapid erosion in the number of farms “in the middle.” Between 1997 and 2002, the number of farms in the U.S. between 10 and 49 acres increased by 6.2%, and farms larger than 2000 acres increased by 4.7%. However, the number of farms between 50 and 179 acres decreased by 5%. Farms between 180 and 499 acres decreased by 13%, and between 500 and 999 acres dropped by 10%. These “farms of the middle” are rapidly being lost, and the social and environmental benefits that these farms provide will go with them. 1

While it is associated with size, agriculture of the middle is more a function of market access. These farms are too large to gain access to niche, direct markets, but are too small to be able to compete long-term in the undifferentiated commodities markets. If we look at the long-term trends for agriculture in the southern U.S., this problem is likely to worsen if not aggressively addressed. Recent changes in Federal commodity programs have eliminated or reduced supply-control commodity programs that have been crucial to the survival of agriculture of the middle. The Federal peanut program was eliminated in the 2002 Farm Bill, replaced by a loan deficiency payment program similar to cotton. Tobacco quota has been reduced by more than 50% since the late 1990’s, and a bill to buy out tobacco quota is currently before Congress.

The cost of this loss is extensive. “We have traditionally expected more from farmers. We expect them to take care of the land for future generations. We expect them to care properly for their animals. We expect them to care for the environment. We expect them to be good citizens of their communities. We rely on them to provide us with food security. All of these public aspects contribute to a healthy landscape and healthy communities”2 It is these aspects of agriculture that are lost as we lose the agriculture of the middle.

Two of the main strategies repeatedly proposed for the viability of farms of the middle have significant weaknesses. Many programs have focused on farmers as individual entrepreneurs, developing farm-based businesses that access specific niche markets. While this strategy has been very successful in many cases, and there is great potential for much more success, the number of farmers who have the skills, access to resources, and access to markets to follow this strategy is limited, and it is most probably viable for a very small percentage of farms of the middle.

Many farmers of the middle have embraced “green labels” (marketing strategies that claim environmental benefits as a part of the value of the product) as a way to add value and increase income as they increase the environmental benefits of their farms. However, recent study of the structure of the organic industry is indicative of the shortcomings of this strategy. “Since a price premium for organic goods is not institutionalized as part of organic standards, prices are market driven and vulnerable to the downward pressures of consolidation, supply and demand, and other forces. If prices fall to conventional levels, production systems will have changed to exclude the small farmers who were the organic pioneers.” 3 As organic and green label products become more prevalent in the marketplace, market pressures dictate that they will become less likely to provide significant price premiums to the farmer, limiting their effectiveness for supporting farms of the middle.

In 2003, Fred Kirschenman of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and Steve Stevenson of the University of Wisconsin Madison convened the Task Force for Agriculture of the Middle. This task force has been meeting throughout 2003-04 to examine the challenges of developing enterprises that support farms of the middle, and the policy implications of this trend.

Initial results of this discussion demonstrate the complexity of the issue, and that effective responses require multi-disciplinary, integrated approaches that encompass production systems, marketing methods and infrastructure, and policy implications. This task force is currently drawing on case studies from around the country to examine how successful enterprises are structured, are developed, and how they can be supported in the policy arena. This task force is gathering an extensive amount of information from across the country.

It is crucial for a task force for southern agriculture of the middle be formed to facilitate the sharing of experience from across the south in these efforts, and to provide a conduit for information to and from the national level. This task force will address production, policy and marketing aspects of agriculture of the middle Our hope is that we will, over time, develop many levels of task forces, from national to regional to state to local. These groups will then share resources, up and down the chain, to add value to their efforts. This proposal is simply to get the ball rolling, initiate the discussion, and to start the process of planning gathering our resources.

Foot Notes:
1. 2002 Census of Agriculture, USDA Agricultural Statistics Service, 2004
2. Kirschenmann, F., S. Stevenson, F. Buttel, T. Lyson, and M. Duffey 2003. “Why Worry About The Agriculture of the Middle?” White paper developed for the Task Force of Agriculture of the Middle.
3. Sligh, M. and C. Christman, 2003 “Who Owns Organic? The Global Status, prospects, and Challenges of a Changing Organic Market” The Rural Advancement Foundation International, Pittsboro, NC.


Materials and methods:

Interviews of agriculture leaders across the south were held in the Fall and Winter of 2004 / 05. Based on the results of these interviews, a meeting was developed to share results of existing Agriculture of the Middle work and begin the development of funding proposals to develop more south-specific work.

Individuals attending the initial meeting at the Southern SAWG conference in January of 2005;

Scott Marlow, the Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA, North Carolina
Steve Washburn, North Carolina State University
Joe Judice, Farmer, Louisiana
Stephan Walker, Farmer, Arkansas
Steve Madson, Agricultural Enterprise Development Consultant, Matson Consulting, Virginia
Fred Stokes, Mississippi
Ben Burkett, Farmer, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Mississippi
Helen Vinton, Southern Mutual Help Association, Louisiana
Michael Sligh, The Rural Advancement Foundation international – USA, North Carolina
Jim Horne, Kerr Conter for Sustainable Agriculture, Oklahoma.
Peggy Sechrist, farmer and Acting Executive Director – Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, Texas

Since that time, development of funding proposals has continued through email and conference call, resulting in a 2006 SARE Research and Education Grant proposal that was submitted in June of 2006 (proposal attached), and has been approved for a full proposal. The full proposal is currently being developed for the November 15, 2006 deadline.

Research results and discussion:

Interviews and discussion throughout the 2-year process resulted in a series of conclusions.

1. The need to address issues of mid-scale farm vitality is important, and time sensitive. We are losing this sector of agriculture quickly.

2. While a shift to production of value-added products can assist mid-scale farmers in maintaining viable enterprises, without changes in market structure, they are simply moving further back on the same treadmill.

3. Solutions will require integration of assistance in three areas; marketing development that allows a greater percentage of the value that farmers produce to come back to the farm financially, development of policy options that facilitate transitions to production of crops that can be sold through these markets, and research that will provide both immediate information on production and marketing, and longer term information on market structure.

4. Mid-scale farm issues play out differently in the south than in other areas of the country due to differences in the farm economy and social history, and solutions developed in other areas of the country do not necessarily apply to southern farmers.

5. The group identified a series of farmers and farmer organizations in the southern region who are models for the development of value chains and value-added enterprises. These farmers represent a significant resource for information and practical experience, and should be the focus of further proposal development.

This planning grant resulted in a SARE Research and Education grant that has been approved for full proposal, and is currently being further developed in preparation for the November deadline.

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.